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       Nefertiti, p.24

           Michelle Moran
 

  “She will be angry.”

  “Then she will have to learn to accept it.”

  My mother picked up my hand and squeezed it. “Your father will be shocked when he returns. Two daughters, both carrying children.”

  “He will be happy. Both of his daughters are fertile.”

  My mother’s smile was bitter. “He would be happier if you had married a prince.”

  That night there was feasting throughout the new city of Amarna. Everywhere was the sound of laughter, and as I helped my mother into a chariot I thought, Nefertiti has done this on purpose. She’s told me she will give me an answer tonight hoping I won’t reach her among all these people.

  The courtyards outside the palace were filled with servants bearing platters of honeyed nuts, plump figs, and pomegranates. Thousands of men from the army drank in the streets with total abandon, singing about war and sex and love. I looked for Nakhtmin as we entered the palace, scanning the crowds for his broad shoulders and bright hair.

  “He won’t be here,” my mother said. “He will be with his men.”

  I flushed to realize that my thoughts were so transparent. A servant took us to the Great Hall, where table after table was filled with feasting viziers and the flirting daughters of wealthy men, all imitating my sister in the way they dressed in the sheerest of linens, hennaing their hands and feet and breasts. But the two Horus thrones on the dais were empty.

  “Where is the queen?” I asked, taken aback.

  “In the streets, my lady!” cried a passing servant. “They are throwing out gold!” He grinned. “To everyone.”

  “Come.” My mother guided me by the arm.

  I followed her to the table of honor before the dais. Panahesi was there with Kiya. So was the sculptor Thutmose and the builder Maya, and I wondered when they had become family. An old man with gold rings on his fingers called to my mother from across the hall and she changed course to go toward him. A servant pulled out an armed chair and Kiya’s ladies watched me with quiet menace from under their wigs. As I took my seat, Kiya announced brightly, “Why, Lady Mutnodjmet, how nice to see you. I thought you might have missed the celebration.”

  “And why would I have done that?” I asked.

  “We thought you were sick.”

  The color drained from my cheeks and the viziers passed questioning glances among themselves.

  “Oh, there isn’t any need to be modest. You must share your good news with everyone.” Kiya announced to the table, “Lady Mutnodjmet is pregnant with the general’s child!”

  It was as if time had suddenly halted. Two dozen faces turned toward me, and the painter Thutmose’s eyes grew large as cups. “Is it true?” he asked.

  I smiled, lifting my chin. “Yes.”

  For a moment, there was a shocked silence among the viziers, then there was a flurry of frenzied whispering.

  Across the table, Kiya smiled complacently. “Sisters, and pregnant at the exact same time. I wonder”—she leaned forward—“what Pharaoh had to say?”

  I didn’t respond.

  “You mean”—Kiya gasped—“he doesn’t know?”

  “I am sure he will be happy,” Thutmose interjected.

  “Happy?” Kiya cried, losing all sense of decorum. “She has bedded a general! A general!” she shrieked.

  “I should think Pharaoh would be proud,” Thutmose assumed. “It is a chance to win the general over to his cause, since Osiris knows Nakhtmin’s heart isn’t in the building.”

  Kiya’s voice was flat. “Then where is it?”

  Thutmose thought. “In the north with the Hittites, I suppose.”

  “Well, perhaps he can go and join Horemheb then.”

  Kiya’s ladies laughed, and Thutmose put a placating hand over hers. “Come now, no one wishes for Horemheb’s fate.” Kiya’s features softened and the sculptor turned toward me. “Tawaret protect you,” he said quietly. “You have helped enough women at court to have earned some happiness for yourself.”

  My mother returned and the trumpets blared, announcing my sister and Akhenaten’s arrival. They cut a glittering path through the Great Hall, smiling as they went, but when my sister came to me her gaze shifted and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. I heard Kiya’s voice in my head. Sisters, and pregnant at the exact same time.

  All night dancers swirled across the Great Hall of Amarna in ripples of linen and netted dresses of bright beads. Fire throwers had come to entertain Akhenaten, but all he had eyes for was my sister. It must have burned Kiya to her very core to see the way women crowded around Nefertiti when she descended the dais, deigning to talk to one or another of the noblewomen. I found my sister speaking with Maya’s wife.

  “Excuse us,” I said, taking Nefertiti’s arm.

  “What are you doing?” The color rose in her cheeks.

  “I want to know if you’ve spoken with Pharaoh.”

  Her temper rose. “I warned you about him. I told you not to—”

  “Have you spoken to him?” My voice grew louder. My mother, at the table beneath the dais, looked over at us. Nefertiti’s face grew hard.

  “Yes. Nakhtmin has been sent north to fight the Hittites with Horemheb.”

  If she had struck me across the face, I would have been less shocked. My breath stuck in my throat. “What?”

  Nefertiti flushed. “I warned you, Mutnodjmet. I said not to go near him—” She cut herself off as Akhenaten appeared. He must have known what we were talking about because he came to me with his brightest smile.

  “Mutnodjmet.”

  I turned to him accusingly. “You sent the general to fight the Hittites?”

  His smile faltered. “Playing with fire will only get you burned. I am sure your father taught you that, little cat.” He reached out to caress my cheek and I flinched. Then he bent close and whispered, “Perhaps next time you shall choose a more loyal lover. Your general asked to go.”

  I stepped back, refusing to believe it. “Never!” My gaze switched to Nefertiti. “And you did nothing?” I demanded. “You did nothing to stop it?”

  “He asked,” my sister said weakly.

  “He never asked,” I said viciously, implicating Pharaoh in my truth, not caring how dangerous my words were. “I am pregnant. I am pregnant with his child and you let him be sent off to his death!” I cried. Conversation in the Great Hall had stopped.

  I banged through the double doors into the night. But I had nowhere to go. I didn’t even know where my chambers were in the palace. I wept, clutching my stomach. What am I going to do? My knees buckled and suddenly I felt ill, unable to stand.

  “Mutny!” my mother cried. She turned to Ipu; they had both followed me out of the Great Hall. “Find her a physician! Now!”

  There were more voices than I could name, all shouting instructions. I was very ill, someone said, and they should move me to the temple where the priestesses could pray for my life. Another voice asked if this would be the temple of Amun or Aten. I drifted into darkness, and I could hear someone talking about the healing powers of the priests. I heard the name Panahesi and my mother’s sharp retort. Linens came, and I felt a heaviness between my legs. My stomach cramped. There was water. Lemon water and lavender. Someone said my father had arrived. Had entire days passed? When I awoke, it was always to darkness, and Ipu was constantly by my side. When I moaned, I remember feeling the cool hands of my mother across my forehead. I asked for her many times. I recall that clearly. But I never recall asking for my sister. I learned later that for days I drifted in and out of consciousness. The first thing I remember clearly is waking up to the smell of lotus blossoms.

  “Mutnodjmet?”

  I blinked against the morning light and frowned. “Nakhtmin?”

  “No, Mutnodjmet.”

  It was my father. I pushed myself up on my elbows and looked around. Reed mats were rolled up above the windows, letting in the morning sun, and the tiled floors gleamed red and blue. Everything was large. The cross-legged stools of animal hid
e, the jeweled caskets and wig boxes, the onyx lamps with turquoise embedded into their columns. But I was confused. “Where is Nakhtmin?”

  My mother hesitated. She sat down on the corner of my bed, exchanging looks with my father. “You’ve been very sick,” she said at last. “You don’t remember the feast, my love?”

  And then it came back to me. Nakhtmin’s death sentence, Nefertiti’s selfishness, my sickness outside the palace. My breath came faster. “What happened? Why am I sick?”

  My father took a seat next to me and placed his large hand over mine.

  My mother whispered, “Mutnodjmet, you’ve lost the child.”

  I was too horrified to speak. I had lost Nakhtmin’s baby. I had lost the only thing that bound me to him, the piece of him I was to keep with me forever.

  My mother pushed my hair away from my face. “Many women lose their first child,” she comforted me. “You are young. There will be others. We must be thankful the gods spared you.” Her eyes welled. “We thought you were gone. We thought you were—”

  I shook my head. “No, this isn’t happening,” I said, pushing away the covers. “Where is Nefertiti?” I demanded.

  My father replied solemnly, “Praying for you.”

  “In Aten’s temple?” I cried.

  “Mutnodjmet, she is your sister,” he said.

  “She is a jealous, selfish queen, not a sister!”

  My mother recoiled and my father sat back.

  “She sent the general away!” I cried.

  “That was Akhenaten’s choice.”

  But I wouldn’t let my father defend her. Not this time. “And she allowed it,” I accused. “One word from Nefertiti and Akhenaten would have overlooked anything we’d done. We could have shamed Amun in the streets, and if Nefertiti had wanted it, he would have let it happen. She’s the only one he listens to. She’s the only one who can control him. Your sister saw it, you saw it. And she allowed Nakhtmin to be sent away. She allowed it!” I shouted. My mother put a placating hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged it off. “Is he dead?” I demanded.

  My father stood up.

  “Is he dead?” I said again.

  “He is a strong soldier, Mutnodjmet. The guards will have brought him north to the Hittite lines and left him there. He will know what to do.”

  I closed my eyes, imagining Nakhtmin thrown to the Hittites like meat to wild dogs. I felt the tears, warm and bitter, coursing down my cheeks, and my father’s placating arm around my shoulder. “You have suffered great loss,” he said softly.

  “He will never return. And Nefertiti did nothing.” My grief overcame me and the tightness in my stomach came back again. “Nothing!” I shrieked.

  My mother held me, rocking me back and forth in her arms. “Shh, there was nothing she could do,” she swore.

  But that was a lie.

  My father went to my bed table and held up a most exquisite chest, inlaid in lapis and pearl. “She’s been here every day. She wanted you to have this for your herbs.”

  I studied the chest. It looked like something Nefertiti would have chosen. Elaborate and costly. “She thinks she will buy me off with a box?”

  There was the sound of shuffled feet outside my chamber, then a servant swung open the door. “The queen is coming!”

  But I would never forgive her.

  She swept into my bedchamber, and the only thing I could see was the round belly beneath her linen. When she saw that I was awake, she stopped, then blinked quickly. “Mutny?” She had come with a turquoise ankh, probably blessed in the Temple of Aten. “Mutny?” She ran to me, embracing me in her tiny arms, and I could feel her tears on my cheeks. My sister, who never cried.

  I didn’t move, and she leaned back to see my face.

  “Mutny, say something!” she pleaded.

  “I curse the day the gods decided to make me your sister.”

  Her hands began to tremble. “Take it back.”

  I watched her and said nothing.

  “Take it back!” she cried, but I turned away from her.

  My parents looked at one another. Then my father said softly, “Go, Nefertiti. Give her some time.”

  My sister’s jaw dropped. She turned to my mother, and when no defense came, she spun away and shut the door in her wake.

  I looked up at my parents. “I want to be alone.”

  My mother hesitated. “But you’ve been so sick,” she protested.

  “Ipu’s here. She will take care of me. For now, I want to be alone.”

  My mother glanced at my father and they left. I turned to face Ipu, who hovered over me, unsure what to do. “Will you bring me my box for herbs?” I asked her. “The old one,” I said. “I want my chamomile.”

  She found the box for me and I lifted the heavy lid. I froze. “Ipu, has anyone been in this box?” I asked quickly.

  She frowned. “No, my lady.”

  “Are you sure?” I sifted through the packages again, but the acacia was gone. The linen-wrapped seeds of acacia were gone! “Ipu.” I struggled to stand up. “Ipu, who could have been in here?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The acacia!”

  Ipu glanced at the box, then covered her mouth. Her eyes wandered to my midriff, understanding. I grabbed the box and threw open the double doors to my chamber. My long hair swayed wild and loose behind me, my linen tunic was unbelted. “Where is Nefertiti?” I cried. Some of the servants backed away. Others whispered, “In the Great Hall, my lady, dining with the viziers.”

  I clenched the box tighter, in a rage so dark that I couldn’t even see the people in the hall when I threw open its doors, startling the guards.

  “Nefertiti!” I shouted. The chatter in the room went silent. The musicians below the dais stopped playing and Thutmose’s mouth fell slightly open. Nefertiti’s ladies gasped.

  I held up the box so that everyone in the hall could see. “Who stole my acacia?” I advanced on the dais, looking at my sister. Panahesi made a noise in his throat and my father stood up. “Someone stole the acacia seeds and poisoned me with them to rid me of my child. Was it you?”

  Nefertiti had gone white as alabaster. She looked at Akhenaten, her eyes wide, and I turned my attention to Pharaoh. “You?” I shrieked. “Did you do this to me?”

  Akhenaten shifted uncomfortably.

  My father took me by the arm. “Mutnodjmet.”

  “I want to know who did this to me!” My voice echoed in the hall, and even Kiya and her ladies went silent. If it could happen to me, it could happen to any of them. Who were their enemies? Who were mine?

  “Let’s go,” my father said.

  I let myself be led out, but at the doors to the Great Hall I turned. “I will never forgive this,” I swore, and Nefertiti knew it was meant for her. “I will never forgive this so long as the sun still sets on Amarna!” I screamed.

  My sister sat back in her chair, looking as though someone had robbed her of her kingdom.

  Chapter Seventeen

  AMARNA

  twenty-eighth of Payni

  “I’M AFRAID SHE will stay here tending her herb garden for the rest of her life. Without a husband, without children…”

  I could hear my body servant’s words from the garden. Three months ago, on the day I’d discovered that someone had poisoned me to kill Nakhtmin’s child, I had found this villa myself, newly built and sitting empty in the golden terraces overlooking the city. No family had purchased it yet from the palace, so I moved into its rooms and claimed the villa as my own. No one would dare to suggest I be removed.

  It had taken three months of seeding and planting, but now I reached down to feel the leaves of a young sycamore, warm and soft. My body servant’s voice grew closer to the garden. “She’s outside, where she always is,” she said, sounding worried. “Tending to her herbs so she can sell them to the women.”

  I felt her presence behind me like a pillar of stone. I didn’t need to hear her voice to know who it was. Besides, I could smel
l her scent of lily and cardamom.

  “Mutnodjmet?”

  I turned and shaded my eyes. I never wore a wig since leaving the palace. My hair grew long and wild. In the sun, Ipu said my eyes were like emeralds; hard and unyielding. “Your Majesty.” I made a very deep bow.

  Queen Tiye blinked in surprise. “You have changed.”

  I waited for her to tell me how.

  “You seem taller, darker, I think.”

  “Yes. I spend more time in the sun where I belong.” I put down my spade and she studied the gardens while we walked.

  “It’s very impressive here.” She noticed the date palms and blooming wisteria.

  I smiled. “Thank you.”

  We entered the loggia and my aunt took a seat. I had changed, but she was still the same: small and shrewd, her mouth pinched, her blue eyes cunning. I sat across from her on a small feather pillow. She had arrived in Amarna with my father, leaving behind the city of Thebes at his request, working with him in the Per Medjat until all hours of the morning, studying scrolls, writing letters, negotiating alliances.

  Ipu placed hot tea between us and the queen took it in her hands. “I have not come to try to bring you back,” she said.

  “I know. You are too judicious for that. You understand that I am done with the palace. With Nefertiti and her statues and her endless scheming.”

  Queen Tiye smiled thinly. “I always thought I chose the wrong sister.”

  I blinked in surprise that anyone would want me over Nefertiti. Then I shook my head firmly. “No. I would never have wanted to be queen.”

  “Which is why you would have made such a fine one.” She put down her cup. “But tell me, Mutnodjmet, what would you suggest for an old woman whose joints are aching her?”

  I glanced at her questioningly. “You have come for my herbs?”

  “As you said, I’ve not come to convince you to come back. I am far too judicious. Besides, why would you leave this villa?” She looked around her, at the wandering vines and high painted columns. “It’s a peaceful sanctuary, away from the city and from my son’s foolish politics.” She tilted her head so that the jewels around her neck, heavy lapis and gold, clinked musically. Then she leaned forward intimately. “So tell me, Mutnodjmet, what do I use?”

 
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